Friday, December 7, 2012

If It Ain't Broke --- DON'T FIX IT!

THIS IS A VERY EPISCOPALIAN-SPECIFIC POST. If you aren't Episcopalian, you're free to read it, but I warn's not going to be that interesting to you (okay, let's face it: It's probably not gonna be all that interesting to Episcopalians, either!)

Our Church has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. 

That is inevitable, and much of that is good. But not all change is good --- I absolutely do not believe in changing things just for the sake of changing them. As the homely old saying goes --- if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I ask: If it ain't broke, why "fix" it? In fact, if it ain't broke, what is there to fix?

There are some things which the Episcopal Church used to do right, and one of the areas in which our light was brightest was in our distinctive, very easily recognizable worship style. Just think: How much significant difference is there between the Episcopal Church and, say, the Methodist or Lutheran or Presbyterian Churches, or the United Church of Christ? Sure, there are some important technical or theological differences --- the Apostolic Succession, the Communion of Saints, the Real Presence, and such --- but for the average layperson in the pew, how much difference is there? Not very much, really. But where there certainly is a difference --- or, used to be a difference --- is in the worship styles of the various denominations. In the old days, one could find a Church community in which the worship style spoke to one's soul. And, of all the denominations just mentioned, it was our Church, the Episcopal Church, which had the most distinctive, easily recognizable worship style. Back then, if you were looking for an Episcopal church and found yourself in one, you knew that it was an Episcopal church; it was not a Lutheran church, or Methodist, or certainly not a Presbyterian or Congregational (UCC) church . Of course, the elaborate symbolism and ritualism didn't speak to the souls of every worshiper; in fact, it was a turn-off to many. People are different --- and that's why I think the large number of denominations with many different worship styles is a good thing. But the old, traditional worship style of the Episcopal Church really resonated with many people --- and was a major factor in leading many of us into this fellowship.

But no, say the professionals, the liturgists; the old way in the Episcopal Church was bad. Or, at least, if it wasn't exactly bad, it wasn't good enough. It didn't do what they say it was supposed to do.

Stop! I don't need someone to tell me how I'm supposed to feel in worship, or why I should or should not do certain things. I know what speaks to me, and why, and I don't care whether some egghead liturgist feels that it should or shouldn't do what he or she thinks it should do. And I'm not alone. You absolutely can't convince me that the precipitous decline in numbers in our Church at roughly the same time that we ceased largely to be The Episcopal Church in worship style and tried to be all things to all people is purely coincidental. I firmly, firmly believe that there is a causal relationship at work.

If I live to be normal, I won't understand why our Church --- and so many others --- felt that the Roman Catholic reforms of Vatican II had to be implemented in our non-Roman Churches. Maybe it worked for the Roman Communion (to be honest, I don’t think it did!), but what did or does that have to do with us non-Roman Catholics? To be sure, the number of active Roman Catholic participants doesn't seem to have declined much, but let's remember that they condemn birth control and encourage large families, so there are always many, many more little Roman Catholics coming down the chute (so to speak). That isn't the case with the rest of us.

I am now going to touch briefly on the worship changes that I oppose in the Episcopal Church, and specifically in my own church, the Pro-Cathedral of St. John in Los Angeles. I know that I'll probably lose most of my readers who may be Episcopal clergypeople, because they'll feel that I'm just too uneducated or stupid to understand what's being done and why, so they won't want to waste any more of their precious time reading my trash. That's okay; they have a right to their opinions, as do I. Besides, I'll lose them anyway when, later on, I post my nontrinitarian views, my resistance to the Bible as "containing all things necessary for salvation" (to quote the 39 Articles and our own BCP), and my almost (but not quite) Swedenborgian opposition to St. Paul! So, I might as well lose them now as later!

There are three main elements of Episcopal worship which I feel have changed fundamentally, and here are the reasons I oppose those changes:

The Altar
In Episcopal churches, the altar has always represented or symbolized the Presence of God. Within the last few years, the altar has been moved out from the wall and closer to, or surrounded by, the congregation. This was meant to symbolize that God Is In Our Midst.

I get that. I revere the concept of the Immanence of God. But, when the emphasis is almost exclusively on God's immanence, I fear we lose track of the equally important reality of God's transcendence. 

We live in a troubled world. But, is this world all there is? For me, it is important to remember that this world, with all its trials and tribulations, all its disasters, is not all there is. There is a Reality which is Over and Above our temporal reality, and that Reality is brought vividly to life for me whenever I kneel before a High Altar, symbolizing the loving Presence of The Great One, my Father. Just as effective human parents don't try to be their kids' friends, I don't want a God Who is my Great Cosmic Pal. When I meet Him in church, I don't want to be standing around the altar like I'm at a weenie roast.

Yes, I know God is in our midst; I get that. I need to be reminded that God is more than just in our midst. Using the High Altar, not a freestanding one, helps me visualize and appreciate this very important spiritual fact.

The Eastward Position
For reasons which I won't go into here, the wall against which the altar used to stand has long been known as the liturgical East wall. When priests celebrated the Mass facing that altar and that wall, it was called celebrating "in the Eastward position." And I definitely prefer it.

In most modern Episcopal churches, the Mass, or Holy Communion, or the Holy Eucharist is celebrated with the celebrant facing the congregation. What happens then is that the attention of all in attendance is on what the celebrant is doing on the altar (and, inevitably, on whether he --- or she --- is doing it right, or is bumbling the whole thing). In the Eastward position, all attention --- of the congregation and of the celebrant! --- is on the altar, the symbolic Presence of God. The priest serves a twofold mission in the drama unfolding at the altar: (1) He or she leads the congregation in prayer or praise; and (2) he or she speaks for God to the congregation. When the celebrant is leading the congregation in prayer or praise, he or she faces God (the altar); when the celebrant speaks the words of God to the assembled congregation, he or she faces the congregation. In neither case do I think of the priest as "having his or her back to the congregation" or the altar.

Congregational Participation
What I consider a new, unfortunate, and really ugly fad in Episcopal worship is to have the congregation twisting and turning to gawk at the priests and choir as they run around (okay, process through) the church. This is supposed to be congregational participation.

Episcopal congregations have always participated in the liturgy. In fact, it's one of the aspects of Episcopal worship that less ritualistic Protestants disliked most. Remember "Stand to praise, sit for instruction, kneel to pray"? That was congregational participation --- along with congregational chanting of psalms and versicles and such. What was wrong with that? If it ain't broke, why fix it?

At St. John's, we even usually stand for confession! What? Stand? To me, that's like looking God in the Eye and challenging Him: "Yeah, I did it. So what're You gonna do about it?"

No! When I examine my conscience and face up to my sins, I must not be defiant; I need to be penitent, and humbly confess my sins (actually, I even do the breast-beating thing!). Only after the priest pronounces absolution do I leap to my feet, joyously free of those sins!

If you feel that I'm just too dense to get it, and that the new ways are better, do this the next time you're in one of the "newer" Episcopal services: Watch the congregation during processions. Sure, there will be some in attendance --- mostly, older folks --- who will genuflect or bow in reverence as the processional cross (symbolizing, for me, the Presence of Christ the King) passes, but most of those in attendance will bow to the celebrant, the last person in the procession. And Lord --- if the celebrant is a bishop, there's all kinds of kow-towing.

No, folks! It's the Lord Jesus and the Gospel that are to be honored --- not the priest or bishop. That kind of nonsense didn't happen in the old days. It was "stand to praise, sit for instruction, kneel to pray." Full, sensible congregational participation. Not faddish. Tried and true.

A final word about worship style: As we all know, the Episcopal Church is a Big Tent Church. In virtually every diocese there are very High-Church or Anglo-Catholic parishes (for example,, very evangelical ones, and others with more modern, celebratory, services (, and some with a distinctly non-WASP, ethnic tenor, and I think that’s a very good thing. But the one common denominator in Episcopal worship has always been our literary masterpiece, the Book of Common Prayer. I very firmly believe that if there is any one congregation in every diocese where the worship style adheres to the BCP, it should be the cathedral. As in Philadelphia (and a few other cities), that is not the case in Los Angeles. Judging by what I have heard from friends (including clergy) in Philadelphia, their new cathedral is loathed, as are the services there. This is a feeling that has been shared with me in confidence even by clergypersons who are on the staff of that cathedral; it is NOT universally liked, not even close.

I do volunteer work for a non-religious social service organization here in Los Angeles, and I am often recognized by people who have visited my church (I am an usher, and used to serve on the Welcome Committee). Hardly a week passes that someone doesn’t voice extreme criticism of the services at St. John’s (the most common nasty comments deal with the coffee hour now being in the nave rather than in the parish hall --- a move that was forced on the congregation over the strong, strong objection of virtually every single longtime member of the parish, including me). While there seems to be a modest rise in attendance numbers and a dramatic increase in financial commitment to St. John’s right now, I pray that it won’t be just a temporary change, and that we don't go the way of the widely-abhorred Philadelphia Cathedral. 

Which brings me to my final point: All of this would be moot, and could be dismissed as the ramblings and rantings of a cranky old man stubbornly stuck in the past, except for one thing: Not all Episcopal churches are drying up; many are growing steadily. There used to be a website entitled something like “Largest Episcopal Churches in the U.S.” which listed a large number of our congregations which are absolutely thriving. Look, for example, at the number of people worshiping regularly at St. Martin’s Church, Houston; it has almost 20,000 members --- that’s 20 THOUSAND. That, my friends, is a megachurch.

As one glanced down the list, three things jumped out at the reader; well, two things “jumped out”; you had to do a little digging to find the third thing:

1.    Most are in the South;

2.    Most are very conservative. My own diocese is one of the most progressive (read: liberal) in the Episcopal Church, with my parish on the left flank of the diocese.  

3.    Most adhere to the BCP in their main worship services.

Three of the largest parishes which are not in the South, and which are decidedly not ultra-conservative, are: Grace Cathedral, San Francisco; All Saints’ Church, Pasadena; and St. Thomas’ Church, New York. But, when you attend a service at any of those three, you know immediately that you’re in an Episcopal church.

We can’t be all things to all people, and we shouldn’t literally kill ourselves trying to be. At St. John’s, not only do we have a free-standing altar; it’s also on a big, wide platform. You almost expect to see Fred Price or Joel Osteen, or maybe even Tony Robbins bounding up to the platform and putting on a performance. We’re not going to attract the people that the Agape Center is there for. Or TD Jakes’ folks. Or the people who are comfortable in Rick Warren’s huge church. Those people have found the spiritual home they need.

No, I have to agree with the apocryphal Boston matron --- up to a point. She couldn’t understand why her church’s new, young rector was always speaking about Evangelism. “Everyone who should be an Episcopalian,” she sniffed, “already is one.” Let’s once again become the Episcopal Church, so that “everyone who should be an Episcopalian, and wants to be an Episcopalian” will know where to find us.

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I welcome comments expressing opinions markedly different from mine. However, I must insist that all comments must be civil and respectful, and should contain little or no profanity; foul language is not a sign of spiritual growth or maturity.